‘So I pulled out my Velázquez book and I saw a beautiful painting of Prince Baltasar Carlos, the little prince wearing this really opulent, rich fabric with the balloony pants, pulling this really confident pose. Something about it reached out to me. This was a different time, different country, different continent, different socio-economic class, different lifestyle. But the gestures and the attitudes of posing in portraiture, especially when you know that you look good, is the same everywhere. It’s a universal thing’ —N. A. CROSBY
‘I think of myself as a woman .. a Nigerian, an African, a person of colour, an artist and the fascinating thing is that the layers I add to how I identify myself changes over time. It just keeps broadening as I move further out into the world’ —N. A. CROSBY
Towering above the viewer, The Beautyful Ones offers a virtuosic, multi-media portrait of Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s hybrid world. A young girl stands alone in an abstract interior, surrounded by a dense collage of images. They paper the walls, the floor, the skirting board; they spread onto her body, as if tattooed to the skin beneath her floating dress. One of the most important African artists to have achieved international recognition in recent years, Crosby draws upon her own experience as a Nigerian living in the USA in order to address global themes of relocation. Recently celebrated as part of the Whitney Museum of American Art Billboard Project, her works combine multiple techniques with erudite art-historical references, merging African and American cultural inflections with nostalgic childhood memories. Executed in 2012, during her residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem, The Beautyful Ones is the first and largest work in an ongoing series of the same title, based on the artist’s relatives. The present work depicts her sister at the age of ten, filtered through Diego Velázquez’s portrait of Prince Baltasar Carlos. ‘Something about [this painting] reached out to me’, she recalls. ‘This was a different time, different country, different continent, different socio-economic class, different lifestyle. But the gestures and the attitudes of posing in portraiture, especially when you know that you look good, is the same everywhere’ (N. A. Crosby, quoted in C. Davies, ‘Interview with Njideka Akunyili Crosby’, http://www.thewhitereview.org/ interviews/interview-njideka-akunyili-crosby/ [accessed 5 February 2017]). The opulence of the Prince’s regalia is here replaced by a spectral patchwork of photographs – many taken from Crosby’s treasured family album. The slippage of time and place is amplified by her intricate layering of Xerox transfer, paint, pastel and coloured pencil, creating a matrix of interlocking visual planes. Evoking myriad artistic languages – from Manet, Bonnard and Braque to Robert Rauschenberg and Kerry James Marshall – it takes its place within a complex practice that is both private and universal in scope.
Born in Enugu, Nigeria in 1983, Crosby moved to Pennsylvania with her sister at the age of sixteen, after winning the Green Card Lottery. In 2009, she was awarded a coveted place on the prestigious Master’s programme at Yale University School of Art. After a year of experimentation, punctuated by classes in postcolonial history and diasporic studies, her practice began to crystallize: ‘something clicked for me’, she recalls. ‘Being a Nigerian woman who was also American at the same time felt like a very fascinating space … I wanted to contribute to that new crop of people who were really talking about that space – not just in art but in literature, in music, in fashion’ (N. A. Crosby, http:// www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/ njideka-akunyili-crosby-tateshots [accessed 2 February 2016]). Seeking to reflect the experience of geographic dislocation, Crosby began to build up a reservoir of source imagery: fabrics from her childhood, old family snapshots, plants from Africa and Los Angeles, shoes and garments both traditional and cosmopolitan. Her settings slip between worlds, juxtaposing conflicting scenery, props, hairstyles and costumes. Her figures – predominantly feminine – consciously subvert the male gaze, challenging the viewer to engage with their scrambled identities. ‘Once people begin to pull this space apart and what’s happening, there is this feeling of being unable to put either the character or the space in a clearly defined box, because it doesn’t exist’, she explains (N. A. Crosby, http:// www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/ njideka-akunyili-crosby-tateshots [accessed 2 February 2016]). This conflation of imagery is amplified by Crosby’s rich technical dialogue: a carefully-calculated palimpsest of drawing, acrylic, charcoal dusting, pastel shadings and grainy photocopies. ‘You’re so engaged intellectually’, she asserts; ‘there’s this complicated chess game going on in your head about how to resolve a work … the equation is always changing’ (N. A. Crosby, http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/ video/njideka-akunyili-crosby-tateshots [accessed 2 February 2016]).
The present work marks Crosby’s renewed engagement with the genre of portraiture. ‘Before I started it I hadn’t done a straight-up portrait for a while’, she explains. ‘Towards the end of my stay at the Studio Museum, I decided I wanted to do a full on portrait, just someone standing, looking straight at you, saying, “This is the history I have come from.” It was time for me to stop running away from it because, at that point, I had been running away from it for two years’. Her chance encounter with Velázquez’s portrait sparked a poignant childhood memory. ‘I wanted to do my own version of Velázquez, and I thought of my sister and when she had this birthday party when she was around 10 years old. We weren’t very rich, so we had one or two nice pieces of clothing that we wore all the time. My sister had this one that she was really proud of and wore it to all of her fancy things, a jumpsuit with harem pant legs. I wanted to do an image of her that closely mirrored the image of Prince Baltasar but was also different from it. The Velázquez is a really dark painting, his outfit is dark, but his skin really stands out against all that darkness. My sister is a person of colour, so I needed to do the flip, where I have this painting that is really light and then her head and arms are dark floating shapes.’ A powerful collision of cultures, at once domestic and global in its reach, The Beautyful Ones marks the dawn of a trajectory that has already come to define Crosby’s oeuvre: ‘I’ll probably work on that series for years to come’, she claims (N. A. Crosby, quoted in C. Davies, ‘Interview with Njideka Akunyili Crosby’, http://www.thewhitereview. org/interviews/interview-njideka-akunyili-crosby/ [accessed 5 February 2017]).